To our car ‘czar’
Congratulations on your new position as Irvine’s transportation director, or “Czar,” if you prefer. Welcome back to Irvine, the city where you earned a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning at UCI from 2005-2007.
Things have changed around here a bit since then. We’ve become a much more diverse, cosmopolitan and sophisticated place in the past decade. With that civic success and economic growth has come traffic and congestion, and that has inspired our new favorite pastime in the city: complaining about traffic and congestion.
Which is why you’re here: to fix it for us.
We’re impressed by what seems to be your meteoric rise through the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority ranks. You were a transportation planning manager back in 2013, quickly moving up the ranks to become the senior director of countywide planning and development by 2016.
We don’t know enough about L.A. Metro to know if yours was a position that required a measure of political savvy to go with your obvious technical and financial skills. We assume so. Use it to navigate city hall in Irvine, where it seems that transportation planning has too long been just part of public works, instead of a key element of the vision of what Irvine is, and can become.
We agree that your job is much bigger than getting our traffic signals synchronized. What you and the new Traffic Commission and city staff propose and implement in coming years can indeed make our city and region more sustainable and livable, improve our air quality, create jobs and stimulate our economy, all while reaching and perhaps exceeding our mobility and traffic improvement goals.
With the mayor, city council and citizenry all in agreement that transportation needs to be improved, you have the implied authority to think big.
And with your two master’s degrees, one from UCI in Urban and Regional Planning, and one from the University of Colorado Denver in Public Administration, plus your 20 years’ experience with transportation projects, we think you’re the person for the job.
Just don’t get bored. In L.A., you had existing and expanding subway and light rail systems to play with.
As far as mass transit goes in Irvine, have you ridden the iShuttle? That’s OK. Neither have most of us.
Still, there’s something about being a bigger fish in a medium pond. Though your official job title is transportation director, we hope you’ll take the “czar” name bandied about a bit to heart. Now, clearly you’ll have to get to know the political landscape in Irvine. But the future of the city is directly connected to how well we (and by “we” we mean you) tackle the transportation issues facing the city.
We want you to be aspirational and inspirational. Feel free to establish a “bully pulpit” to get things done in the city. Irvine has long taken the lead on local and regional planning issues so build on that history.
And while you’re at that, can you fix the left hand turn signals in the city? They’re driving us crazy.
Don’t eliminate them, though. You may not remember a time in L.A. when it felt like there was one left hand signal between downtown and Beverly Hills (LaBrea and Highland, perhaps). But ours have us sitting waiting for the green arrow while no traffic is coming towards us.
As you do your due diligence by driving around the city at rush hour, cycling on our streets, trails and paths, and walking our paseos and sidewalks, you might chuckle a bit. Our traffic is really nothing compared to the Westside of L.A., after all. There, it may take an hour to go a mile. Here, we’re upset if we have to sit at a light through more than one cycle.
Which isn’t to say you or the residents of Irvine should discount the concerns about traffic. It got you this job, after all. Congestion can and must be improved.
We’re certain you’re hearing suggestions from all sides as you get settled in at your new job. Here are a few of ours, Mark. Take them in the spirit that they’re offered. We all want you to succeed in making Irvine a better place to work and live.
Review all of the city’s studies and plans that have been completed and paid for but only partially implemented. These include IBC Vision Plan, the Citywide Traffic Operation and Traffic Management Study, and others. Keep what makes sense, discard what doesn’t. But don’t recreate the wheel where it’s not expedient. Like many bureaucracies, we’ve spent a lot of time studying issues in Irvine, taking polls and the like. Now is the time for innovation and action.
Then reach out to the consultants and experts on those studies; to top firms that include traffic consultant Albert Grover and Associates, as well as Transpogroup, Stantec, Adventec and others, as well as academics and other experts in and around Irvine, to see what they really think.
Move some long-term traffic projects to the front of the line, if you deem it appropriate. It drives us crazy to see key solutions on city wish lists described as being 10 years away when we need them now.
Synchronize city traffic signals.
Specifically, city and Caltrans traffic signals need to be better coordinated across freeway interchanges. Luckily, Caltrans is easy to work with, so you should have no problem fixing that…. right?
Think of the future when spending that money to address today’s traffic problems. Irvine should be on the forefront of development of smart roads and highways that incorporate technology to help monitor road conditions, mitigate traffic, and work in concert with autonomous vehicles, among other things. In coming years, vehicles, infrastructure, and systems will be in constant communication with every other vehicle and even with the roadway itself with the use of vehicle-to-vehicle data protocol called dedicated short-range communications, or DSRC. Self-driving autos equipped with DSRC could drive 70 mph with just inches between them. Experts say the elimination of gaps between vehicles could more than triple the capacity of a roadway. Think how nice that would be on the 405 South between 3 and 7 p.m.
Let’s plan for these and other technological changes that are surely coming, such as autonomous vehicles circulating throughout the city. Team up with Lyft, Google, Apple, Tesla or any other NextGen mobility company to test any one of the many transportation innovations under development, from driverless vans circulating on set routes or on-demand services that already exist. The city should make collaboration easy, perhaps in partnership with UCI or other local stakeholders.
Focus those innovative solutions on the IBC and Irvine Spectrum. They’re transit adjacent, and already have some of the highest densities of mixed uses—housing, offices, tech and retail—that support transit-oriented development.
Work with colleagues in other cities and agencies to provide leadership for regional planning that impacts Irvine. Projects in and around the population of adjacent cities are significant contributors to congestion in Irvine. While we should respect the sovereignty of those cities, staying actively engaged with your colleagues there will serve Irvine well. The poorly designed parking flow and limited ingress and egress at The District, just over the border in Tustin, impacts traffic on Jamboree and Barranca in Irvine, and the development of Tustin Legacy will as well.
Use your bully pulpit to continue to explain that Irvine’s streets are beginning to experience the traffic for which they were built. And that traffic peaks for a much shorter duration in Irvine than in other communities.
Use your experience in public private partnerships as a means to accelerate delivery of transportation projects. We believe you once wrote: “If we can use up-front private investment to finance some of the projects, we will likely see construction cost savings due to today’s favorable bidding environment, efficiencies in alternative delivery and/or management strategies, congestion mitigation, earlier achievement of CO 2 emissions reductions and earlier completion of planned rail-bus-highway transportation network.” Sounds good, go do it.
Review and improve all of the city’s non-auto mobility programs.
Study modifying and/or removing parking requirements for commercial and residential construction in parts of town where it may make sense. Many transportation experts, academics and city planners have come to believe that requiring multiple parking spots per unit at developments contributes to housing shortages and expense. Modifying those requirements may allow developers to add more units because less space is required for parking, allowing a profit margin sufficient to make the project economically viable while resulting in lower costs to buyers/tenants. Removing zoning requirements does not eliminate parking supply; it simply allows developers to decide how many spaces to build based on market demand. Of course, this only works in more walkable and bikeable neighborhoods where residents can get around for a few trips a day without a vehicle.
Let’s incentivize commercial and residential developers to include designated drop-off and pick-up areas for vehicle sharing in their projects, to accommodate people who travel by Lyft, Uber and the services yet to come.
Continue to improve the city’s cycling infrastructure. It’s easy to rest on our accolades as a forward-looking city for those who travel by bicycle. But there are gaps in the network of paths, trails and dedicated bikeways. The recently announced project to extend the Jeffrey Open Space Trail will help, but we recommend you meet with Bill Sellin and other cycling advocates to learn what needs to be done to make Irvine a safer and more efficient place for active car-free travel.
Fill the gaps in the system. For example, there’s no reason in the world that the wonderful Walnut Trail that runs along the railroad tracks from Harvard to Sand Canyon wasn’t included as part of the railroad bridge built over Sand Canyon a few years ago, and now extended along the new road being built to connect under the 5 and 133 to Technology Dr. The cross-city connection to The Great Park and beyond would be a key addition to cycling in the city, and there are many more such gaps.
Much of the traffic on those major north/south arterials is there because they offer connections to both the I-5 and I-405 freeways. So do we need to build more freeway on and off-ramps to spread this load out through the city? Look first at the overpasses without ramps, such as Von Karman, Harvard, Trabuco, Yale Loop and Yale Ave.
Leverage existing infrastructure that’s underutilized, like the Toll Roads. Work with Transportation Corridor Agency to expedite the planned addition of exit and entrance ramps from Trabuco to the SR-133 Toll Road, and explore subsidized tolls or other incentives for SR-261 and SR-133 segments in Irvine to get folks off the surface streets and onto those roads.
Try to convince Metrolink to expand service to and from Irvine. The train schedules still treat Irvine as if it were a bedroom community mainly sending workers north to L.A. to work, rather than the economic magnet it is. Later trains out of Irvine are needed. More trains during midday, too. After the 5:17 p.m. train heading north to downtown L.A., the last two trains only go to Fullerton, and they leave at 6:05 and 9:00 p.m. The trains leaving Irvine for the IE are better, departing the station at 4:06, 4:55, 5:28, and 6:45. But we know a lot of jobs that don’t allow one to consistently leave the office by 6:20 p.m., which is necessary to catch those last trains. Use your knowledge and influence with Metrolink and other agencies to have Irvine seen as the global center of commerce it is deserving more frequent service.
Traffic calming is another seemingly counterintuitive measure to improving multimodal travel. If you believe in it, be an advocate for it where appropriate.
Jamboree Road is the busiest Irvine arterial, servicing the Irvine Business Complex while providing access to the I-5 and I-405 freeways as well as the SR-261. Study the Jamboree expansion plan that’s currently underway. Keep it, scrap it or improve it.
Do we need to lose some of our landscaped medians? One thing about Irvine and other master-planned South County cities: our parkways are beautiful. But on some congested stretches, perhaps those medians might be put to better use as additional traffic lanes; lanes that change direction depending upon daily congestion changes, or perhaps dedicated bike lanes. Irvine Center Dr./Edinger is an example of a wide median, with aging and dying trees that aren’t all that pretty to look at, and may have a higher and better use.
Consider peak lane reversal. In the city of Irvine, most commuters travel south in the a.m. hours and north in the p.m. hours. City traffic studies show that the north-south arterials, such as Jamboree, Culver and Jeffrey face abnormally high southbound traffic during the morning and high northbound traffic during the evening. Let’s study using medians or other solutions to have an automated lane reversal during peak traffic. Most of us have seen similar lanes in tunnels and on bridges. Let’s see if it could work in Irvine.
We need more pedestrian bridges. The wide regional arterial intersections with multiple lanes and heavy turning movements, coupled with long crosswalks necessitate long traffic signal cycles hampering traffic progression and often resulting in extended motorist, cyclist, and pedestrian delays.
Study what UCI does well. The university has an extensive and successful alternative transportation program that reduces thousands of vehicle trips every day from the city’s street system via carpools, vanpools and transit. Learn from it, copy it, and use it.
Parents love this one: consider working with the Irvine Unified School District to buy buses and limit parent drop offs of their kids, a major cause of traffic in the city twice daily.
Evaluate the iShuttle program. The transit vans are designed to serve commuters who work in Irvine and live elsewhere, whose jobs allow them to come and go on a defined schedule every day. But that does not describe the urban villagers who live in the IBC, or the entrepreneurs and knowledge workers at the new creative offices of The Boardwalk and other commercial buildings coming to the IBC. OCTA agreed to pay 90 percent of iShuttle costs for 30 years, so it’s not a big money loser for the city. But perhaps there’s a better way, like on demand roving autonomous vehicles in the IBC and Spectrum.
Consider all options for improving public transit. Everything should be put on the table in blue-sky creative meetings where nothing is dismissed out of hand, from simple concepts like signal coordination, bike sharing and sharrows to big ideas with big price-tags, like fixed rail lines (light rail, monorail, etc.) connecting Irvine Station to Irvine Spectrum, and Tustin Station to the IBC and JWA. Those ideas may be ridiculous, ultimately. But let’s not assume they are.
Well, Mark, that should be enough to keep you looking busy for the bosses during your first few days on the job. We wish you luck, and we look forward to the day when, thanks to you and your colleagues, we can once again travel the length of Jamboree, Culver and Jeffrey without traffic or stopping at a single red light.
Irvine City News Editorial Team